Dave Ford has lived in Bacliff since 1977, save a short time in Key West. As he pulled a kite out of his Jeep on a warm, if overcast, day at a bayside park in San Leon in January, he acknowledged that things aren’t the same in the east part of the county as they were back in the day.
“It used to be wild around here,” Ford, who lives in Bacliff, said. “It’s toned down.”
On the western shore of Galveston Bay, the unincorporated communities of San Leon and Bacliff have a way of feeling more independent, and a little more wild, than their more officially organized neighbors.
Part of that is their history. San Leon is infamous for being the birthplace of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, an outlaw motorcycle gang, and a decade ago, a criminal street gang known as the 4th Street Bloods was broken up by a federal task force.
But in recent years, progress, driven by the unyielding growth of the Houston area, has started to reach the east side of Galveston County.
“I think more and more people are coming and some of the blight that we had is being cleaned up and more people are seeing that as a nice vacation-recreation area to live,” said Darrell Apffel, the Galveston County Commissioner whose precinct includes the two communities.
Since 2000, the combined population of Bacliff and San Leon has grown by more than 4,500 people, from about 11,000 to 15,800 in 2017, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s an increase of 43 percent.
That growth is mostly driven by Bacliff, the larger of the two communities, where the population is now greater than 10,000 people, according to the census bureau. That’s more people than the incorporated cities of Hitchcock and Kemah.
The growth has some people on edge. With new people, come new ideas, said Shane Howell, a San Leon resident who participated in local discussions about incorporation in the community. A recent straw poll conducted during a community meeting at the local volunteer fire station rejected that proposal.
“There’s so many people that move in here that aren’t from here and have ideas about the way they think San Leon should be,” Howell said.
Still, there’s no sign that growth or the changes will slow down. In fact, publicly announced plans have the communities bracing for more growth.
The expansion of state Highway 146 began in February. Proposed to end at the intersection with the League City Parkway, just north of Bacliff, the expanded highway is nonetheless expected to make the east side of the county more accessible.
With the highway coming, there are signs that the county is trying to make Bacliff and San Leon more resident-friendly places to live.
In 2018, the county celebrated the opening of a new 64-acre-park in Bacliff, which included a new community center. The county this year continued to advertise for bids to make improvements to the park, including the addition of walking trails.
Additionally, there’s been a new push for health and safety regulations that haven’t been seen in the county before. In January, county commissioners began discussing a regulation that would require higher standards for RVs, which are ubiquitous in the communities. In order to stay in a single place, RV owners would either need to raise their vehicles higher off the ground or else move themselves every six months.
County officials say the reason for the rules is two-fold. First, they protect more homes against flood threats that exist everywhere in the county.
But they’re also a means of tamping down on some of that wild, outlaw nature of the area, Apffel said. Part of the idea is that more regulation will drive some bad elements out of the area, Apffel has said.
“I think the issue now is that there is a keener eye to cleanup of that area that wasn’t there 20 years ago,” Apffel said. “Just by nature of development and of people’s interest, we’re trying to make it a cleaner, more developed area.”